The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover
Peter Greenaway (1990; Miramax)
Kicking the Canon film selection, 1990

From the start we’re reminded of Kubrick. Atop a lovely bed of Michael Nyman’s strings, the camera ascends gracefully from a basement of snarling canines to a foggy parking lot high above, landing in a symmetrical widescreen framing of the first of many amoral spectacles: Albert (Michael Gambon), the monstrous mobster owner of upscale restaurant Le Hollandaise, and Mitchel (Tim Roth), his pathetic henchman, finishing up the last bit of some criminal business. (Shortly after, the victim, covered in dung and urine, accepts a glass of wine from sympathetic busboys in the kitchen — the first inspired meshing of the grotesque and the gourmet.) But Peter Greenaway, something of an aesthetic chameleon over his long, varied career, goes to further moment-to-moment extremes of planimetric staging and obsessive symmetry than Kubrick ever did, exaggerating the decorative artifice as a material presence in the film. In rigorously choreographed horizontal dolly movements, and with an anamorphic lens splaying the edges of the frame, Greenaway’s camera probes the layers of Albert’s hedonistic den — something of a defective Matryoshka doll that gets increasingly unflattering (a boisterous kitchen, rancid walk-in freezers, and a noirish parking lot) the more it expands from its innermost form (the luxurious dining hall). It’s unmistakably apparent that this is an artificial space even before the source of an angelic opera voice on the soundtrack is revealed as a toddler dishwasher with a freaked-out head of white hair. The whole set, held up by conspicuous construction planks and covered in tarps, looks like it might fall over at any moment, a possibility that grows especially likely as Albert, a bull in his own china shop, takes out his simmering rage on a plethora of restaurant patrons and kitchen appliances.

In the dining hall, regardless of camera placement, we can always hear Albert’s voice unleashing a hailstorm of vile British insults and didactic gastronomic lectures, a clue that this is fundamentally, thanks to the evils of power and capital, his property. And in this property, he expects people to act as he pleases. That doesn’t bode well for Michael (Alan Howard), a solitary bookworm with whom Albert’s wife Georgina (a young, debonair Helen Mirren) begins a tacit sex-fueled affair played out in the antiseptic women’s bathroom, behind the curtain of the Cook’s (Richard Bohringer) bread pantry, and eventually in the horrid trunk of an 18-wheeler filled with animal carcasses surely kept well beyond lawful kitchen ordinances. (“It’s better to do it under his nose. He’ll never believe [it],” she passionately gasps.) The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover — a title that offers its own synopsis — has often been interpreted as an allegory for Thatcher’s iron-fisted England and its intimidating restrictions on free will, a literal reading that helps to lend symbolic significance to the actions of the film’s major players. For instance, the narrative of Georgina — whose simultaneous antipathy and resignation toward her hateful husband is established visually in a recurring two-shot of beauty and beast at the dinner table, the décor arranged just delicately enough to create a trompe l’oeil suggesting a split screen — ultimately becomes in this context a portrait of the slow dawning of activist dissidence. But such a one-to-one political analysis undersells Greenaway’s magnificently appalling vision of power-mad cruelty and its resistance. First and foremost, the film is about human nature in its totality, reconfigured as an avant-garde ballet (of camera, performers, light, costumes and objects), with the initial courtship of Wife and Lover striking the same chord of bittersweet tragedy as that once shared between Barry and Lady Lyndon. Beauty, in both Kubrick and Greenaway’s estimation, is immediately foreshortened by its inevitable collapse.

— Carson Lund (@lund_carson)
Part of Kicking the Canon

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